The right tyres change everything. They can make the difference between riding and sliding, railing or crashing, puncturing or ploughing. Bump absorption, damping and rolling resistance are also very important. We’ve tested a range of tyres to see you through the winter slop, from aggro all-rounders to spiky mud munchers and these were the best performers of the bunch. We’ve gone for 29in rubber here, but most are available in 650b and 26in versions too.
How we tested
To keep things consistent, we used the same bike with the same wheelset (DT Swiss EX1501 with 25mm internal width) and used exactly 23psi front and 25psi rear throughout testing. We used tubeless tyres and inflated them with a track pump to check for sealing and burping issues. We then measured each tyre’s width and height with a Vernier gauge and the hardness of the tread with a durometer before hitting the trails.
First up was a roll-down test. We took an average over three timed runs down a fireroad (without pedalling) to gauge rolling resistance. We then did back-to-back runs of several muddy, rocky and rooty tracks, taking two or three runs before swapping tyres and repeating to get the most direct comparison possible.
We did this several times on a range of different tracks at a few different riding spots, often using a stopwatch to put a number to the tyres’ performance. We hope this thorough testing helps you pick the best bike boots for your needs.
What to look for
Profile: The cross-section shape of a tyre. Squarer tyres bite harder into slippery turns and off-cambers. Rounder tyres offer a more predictable drift — they generally roll faster and carry speed better through flat corners. Remember wider rims make a given tyre squarer.
Casing: Often overlooked, the casing (or carcass) is the nylon-reinforced body of the tyre. Its construction balances weight and rolling resistance on one hand, with puncture-resistance, damping and stability on the other. It has a huge effect on rolling drag and traction.
Compound: The rubber mix used in the tread. Softer rubber sticks better to hard surfaces and offers more damping, but increases drag and wears faster. The softness is measured in durometer, with lower numbers (e.g. 40a) indicating softer rubber.
Damping: A well-damped tyre is one that uses a thick, rubbery casing and soft tread compounds which absorb the energy of bumps to resist bouncing off them. This results in a calmer ride and more traction, but inevitably means more rolling resistance and weight.
Tread: Taller, spikier tread blocks offer more grip in soft ground but generally increase rolling resistance. Look for widely spaced blocks to prevent mud-clogging, while siping (grooves) on the tread to help it stick to hard ground like a mountain goat’s hoof.
Schwalbe Magic Mary SuperGravity TrailStar 29x2.35
- Price: £65 / $98 / AU$100
- Weight: 1,145g
- Width: 2.35in
- Height: 2.2in
The Magic Mary is the only tyre here that actually measures up to the width quoted on the side. At 2.35in exactly it’s also the biggest. The SuperGravity casing uses really stiff sidewalls that rebound from big impacts very slowly, giving a stuck-down feel. The top of the tyre is nice and supple though, so it feels far less wooden over trail chatter than many beefy tyres. This means lower rolling resistance, less fatigue and more traction.
It’s pressure-sensitive and can feel harsh if run too hard, but the sidewalls offer plenty of support as low as 20psi. It’s heavy too but has proven incredibly puncture-proof, while rolling resistance is not too bad considering the grip. The TrailStar compound is not actually that soft, but heavily siped, and deep tread blocks claw up tenacious traction regardless — only e*thirteen’s TRSr sticks better on rocks and roots.
It’s on muddy and loose ground that the Mary really shines. The spiky, slightly ramped centre tread generates superb braking grip, while tall, well-supported shoulder blocks dig up unsurpassed cornering bite. Though it’s a bit too square on really wide rims, it allowed us to rail turns on our 25mm wheels with huge confidence and later braking than any other tyre. It will clog up slightly easier than a Shorty in pure slop, but the Mary is equally at home on rock, dust, gravel and roots.
Verdict: Tames the wildest, roughest, slippiest tracks better than anything else here
e*thirteen TRSr / TRS+ 29x2.35
- TRSr (front): £68 / $72 / AU$116
- TSR+ (rear): £57 / $59 / AU$100
- Weight: 964g
- Width: 2.30in
- Height: 2.15in
E*thirteen TRS tyres come in two flavours. The TRSr features by far the softest triple compound mix on test; the TSR+ uses slightly harder rubber. We opted for the TRSr on the front, with the faster rolling TRS+ on the rear. This combo was the second slowest in our roll-down tests.
If we’d used the stickier TRSr front and rear, it would’ve been even slower. On the other hand, the TSRr’s super soft compound, combined with the massive width and beautifully damped carcass, provides incredibly surefooted traction on wet, rooty and rocky gnar that would put most downhill tyres to shame.
The casing feels stable and well-damped like a tyre several hundred grams heavier; combined with the high volume this encourages lower pressures too. Though designed to work with e*thirteen’s own wheels, we had no issues on our DT Swiss rims. The tread offers superb traction on practically every surface other than deep mud. Even on 25mm rims they come up very square, making for a slightly grabby, speed-scrubbing feel when leant in really hard through flat corners. However, they posted the fastest time on our steepest, loosest test track.
Thanks to that carcass and heavily siped shoulders, even the cheaper, faster, harder wearing TRS+ provided remarkable off-camber traction when run up front, so it’s probably the smart-money compound for most conditions.
Verdict: Draggy and a little square, but hugely confident and planted in nasty terrain
Specialized Hillbilly Grid 29x2.3
- Price: £35 / $60 / AU$TBC
- Weight: 960g
- Width: 2.13in
- Height: 2.09in
We’ve spent a lot of time on the Hillbilly Grid and have been consistently impressed by it. It’s only when it came to the comparative testing environment of this test that its performance became clear. We spent a lot of time back-to-back testing it against Maxxis’ Shorty — a natural comparison given the similar intentions and design of both tyres. While the Shorty had the edge in terms of mud-shedding and finding traction in the sloppiest ground, the Hillbilly is not too far off it.
It comes up on the squarer side, so we’d not recommend it on rims much wider than 25mm. We’ve tried it on a 29mm rim and found it a little unpredictable in the turns. When things get rocky though, the Hillbilly has the edge on the Shorty. The centre tread in particular is softer in compound and the pitted blocks grip pretty well over rooty and rocky ground. The Grid casing is also far better damped and more secure at low pressures, so the Hillbilly feels relatively controlled when fired through random rocky sections.
According to our roll-down tests it’s also a surprisingly fast-rolling tyre, and indeed it never feels sluggish on longer rides or fireroad climbs. When compared to the Shorty, it’s not as good in the mud but it’s more secure on rocky terrain. We’d call that a draw if it weren’t for the price — it’s an absolute bargain!
Verdict: A good balance of mud and hard-ground grip, with great rolling speed
Maxxis Shorty 3C EXO 29x2.3
- Price: £56 / $78 / AU$99
- Weight: 885g
- Width: 2.11
- Height: 2.07in
The Shorty is the best mud tyre here. An evolution of Maxxis’ uncompromising mud spike, the Wetscream, it’s a bit more of an all-rounder, with slightly shorter, broader tread blocks that don’t squirm as much on hard ground. It still bears mud tyre DNA, with well-spaced, moto-esque centre tread and huge shoulder blocks that stick out at nearly 45 degrees. This means the Shorty digs really well into soft, muddy ground, while the gappy and outwardly angled tread cleared mud where others clogged up. The braking is also impressive, in particular, cornering traction in the sloppiest, softest ground. Surprisingly, it performed pretty well in our roll-down tests too.
The 3C compound and siped centre tread generates decent grip (but not the best) on wet rocks and roots, and the well-supported tread blocks stand up to hard cornering loads well too. Being the narrowest and lightest tyre on test, it feels comparatively sketchy and less planted when hitting rocky sections at speed. With little damping from the lightweight EXO casing, it can be a handful in the rough.
Conventional wisdom says that narrow tyres perform better in the mud, but we’re not entirely convinced given our results testing plus tyres in the slop. The 2.3in Shorty is superb in muddy, soft ground, but the new 2.5in version could be a better bet for all-round aggro riding.
Verdict: A lightweight tyre over rocks, but super fast and superb in slippery slop
Maxxis Minion DHF 3C EXO 29x2.5
- Price: £56 / $60 / AU$110
- Weight: 1,000g
- Width: 2.25in
- Height: 2.14in
After doing a lot of testing with plus tyres, it’s become clear that bigger tyres offer some huge advantages. They roll faster and more smoothly over rough ground, while offering more grip. The 2.5in Minion appears a good compromise then, but sadly they only measure up at 2.25in wide (when inflated to 25psi on our 25mm rim). This is wider than most, but still slightly narrower than some 2.35in tyres. Still, while rolling speed was mid-pack on our fireroad tests, they carry remarkable speed over rough terrain and, in particular, through corners.
The rounded profile makes them a great choice for wider rims, and even on our 25mm hoops it seemed to help the bike carve through flat turns more smoothly, scrubbing less speed than squarer competitors. The Minions posted the fastest time on our flat-corner test track too. Cornering grip is also exceptional thanks to huge, siped and well-spaced shoulder tread blocks, which dig deep into soil and loam.
While the EXO casing has proven exceptionally puncture resistant, it feels a little less secure and well-damped than many tyres of similar weight, resulting in a slightly more ‘pingy’ ride over rooty, rocky ground. The DHF makes no claims to be a mud tyre and indeed isn’t the best at clearing mud. It’s also a little short on braking grip, locking up more readily than most on steep, loose tracks.
Verdict: Narrower than advertised and not the best damped, but still a KOM/QOM killer
This article was originally published in What Mountain Bike magazine.